How to overcome writer’s block
Our Senior Content Strategist, Simon Fairbanks, offers his tips for overcoming writer’s block, drawing upon his experience as a novelist and short story writer. Simon will talk about writer’s block and more in his talk, “Oil your creative cogs with content strategy,” at the CASE Europe Annual Conference on Thursday 29 August.
We all need to write.
But often the words don’t come.
There is nothing more off-putting than staring at a blank, glowing screen.
This is true of all written formats: email, webpages, blog posts, fundraising letters, strategy documents, press releases, even a simple tweet.
Suffice it to say, you don’t have to be a novelist to suffer from writer’s block, although it is something I regularly contend with as a writer of fiction.
In this blog post, I am going to offer my top tips for overcoming writer’s block to help get your words flowing once again.
What is writer’s block?
Writer’s block is a condition in which a person loses the ability to produce new work.
It comes in many guises. Analysis paralysis. Creative slowdown. Burnout.
Many famous creative types have suffered from writer’s block, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, George R R Martin, and Adele.
The causes of writer’s block include problems with the work itself, perfectionism, a lack of inspiration, personal distractions outside of work, and high-pressured circumstances.
But is it real?
Many famous authors argue that writer’s block is a myth – little more than a convenient excuse for not writing.
Neil Gaiman once said, “As writers, we’re lucky. If we’re not productive, we can blame it on writer’s block, an ailment that doesn’t seem to exist for other professions. For instance, shoe salesmen do not get shoe salesmen block.”
Sir Terry Pratchett had his own no-nonsense view: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
Condition or not, there are undoubtably times when we can’t find the words – times when the email, the report, the copy, the brochure, just aren’t getting written.
I would therefore like to offer these tips to help get you writing again.
1. Write anyway
Starting with the most obvious: if you don’t feel like writing, just write anyway.
Writer Barbara Kingsolver said, “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say ‘oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse’. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”
This might be tough love, but sometimes you need to push yourself to get the words written, one dogged word at a time.
2. Write anything
Free writing is a valuable technique. When free writing, a person writes continuously for a set period of time, without worrying about spelling or grammar or even coherence. It doesn’t even matter what you write. Just get some words down. Any words.
Free writing produces very messy copy, but it is great for overcoming creative blockages.
In fact, free writing often produces some gems. The act of writing anything gets you back into the flow, so better words start coming after a few paragraphs.
Even if you do produce something messy, you can still salvage valuable content through editing and redrafting. But you need words, any words, before you can do that. Remember the advice of author Nora Roberts: “You can’t edit a blank page.”
3. Write differently
Try scribbling your thoughts in a different way. Non-linear formats such as mind-maps are a great way to get your ideas down on paper. They feel informal too, which eases the pressure.
Bullet-points are also a winner. They help you break large, daunting projects into bite-sized pieces, allowing you to plan the full piece of writing in note form. You can then return to each bullet-point, one at a time, and expand upon them. Much less scary.
4. Use your analogue desk
Author Austin Kleon was a keynote speaker at ContentEd in June 2019.
I loved Austin’s recommendation that a person should have two desks: a digital desk for working and an analogue desk for playing. The analogue desk can be for doodling, colouring, collaging, building with Lego, anything fun!
Escaping your blank page, and doing something creative with your hands, is a great way to allow your mind to wander and kickstart your creativity.
5. Use your kettle
I find tea and coffee work wonders in overcoming difficult stretches of writing.
Healthline explains, “Caffeine blocks an inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain, which causes a stimulant effect. This improves energy levels, mood and various aspects of brain function.”
Even for decaffeinated drinkers, the act of getting up and putting the kettle on is a big help. It is a great excuse to stretch your legs, escape your difficult document for a few moments, so you return to your screen refreshed.
Some moderation is required, of course!
Nothing helps me work through a problem quite like going for a run. Whilst I run, I write in my head. I plan out sentences, think of opening lines, and brainstorm fresh ideas for content. I don’t intentionally do any of this – it just starts happening.
Running will get your endorphins pumping, which will turn your creative cogs. Blood rushes through your veins, causing oxygen to surge around your body, which blows the cobwebs off your brain.
If your words aren’t flowing, then read someone else’s. Look for inspiration by flicking through your existing webpages, prospectus or strategy documents. Have a scroll through your organisation’s social media channels.
Better yet, read something you have written yourself, something which makes you feel proud. This will give you an extra confidence boost (oh, that’s right, I can write!) to kickstart your motivation.
8. Remove distractions
Your environment can be a huge contributor to writer’s block.
Is there too much noise? Not enough noise? Is your chair uncomfortable? Are notifications pinging in the corner of your screen every five minutes?
Writing requires concentration, so trim away all those little annoyances. It will free up your headspace and keep you on point.
9. Find your routine
Reflect on your writing habits.
Do you produce your best copy first thing in the morning, or towards the end of the day? Do you prefer writing a strategy document in isolation, or are you energised by the chaos of your commuter train?
Identify your most productive times, your most creative conditions, and protect them in your Outlook calendar. Don’t let a meeting request derail your routine. Set a reoccurring appointment with your muse instead.
10. Blocked or empty?
Sometimes the words won’t be blocked.
Sometimes you will be empty of words altogether.
When that happens, it is time to fill yourself up again. Broaden your experiences and perspectives. You do that by embracing the people and the world around you.
Talk to colleagues, reconnect with friends, pop your head into a classroom, see what activities are happening on campus, hug your family, watch something, eat something, take a day of leave – whatever it takes to enrich yourself.
Make sure you have something new to say when you return to your blank page.
Simon will talk about writer’s block and more in his talk, “Oil your creative cogs with content strategy,” at the CASE Europe Annual Conference on Thursday 29 August.